Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Summer Reading

Well, I'm still grounded. Stupid rash. But I'm still working on making lemonade out of life's itchy lemons. Besides, sometimes you need a bit of a nudge to do a little basic housekeeping, bookkeeping and such. So I've organized, dusted and have been doing some summer reading, taking time in the heat of the day to catch up on magazine articles and finally reading some books I've wanted to start but never quite got around to until now. One of those books is a classic, "Sand County Almanac" by Aldo Leopold. I've had this one sitting on the shelf for years, and I always intended to read it, but put it off, thinking it was one of those books that one ought to read, but would likely take some effort. And so I never got around to reading it until this summer. What a shame that I took so long! It's a lovely little gem of a book. Aldo Leopold was a witty, sweet writer, who thought about the same sort of things that make me wonder and laugh. He was one of the pioneers in the field of ecology and conservation. His Almanac was a year's worth of nature observations around his weekend property along the Wisconsin River NW of Madison. The book also includes several important essays about conservation. I've enjoyed every page of this wonderful book and intend to give it as a gift to all my nature loving friends (spoiler alert!). I was surprised to learn that he died in his late 40's. He was a relatively young man--younger than I am now. Too bad, because he gave so much to the field of wildlife ecology and had so much more to offer. I am a UW alum and I'm a little disappointed that "Sand County Almanac" was not required reading for all students there. But nevertheless, I recommend it to anyone interested in a good book, or who likes to think about how things fit together in the natural world. Even though it was written in the 1940's, "Sand County Almanac" feels current and relevant. There are a lot of good messages to be found in these pages, but the one that appeals to me most right now is the idea that there are wondrous things happening just outside our front door. We don't have to travel to the ends of the world or to the deep wilderness to find nature. Even in a crowded city or sprawling suburb, there are places nearby to go and commune with nature. I think I am especially lucky in this respect. Some of this is because my husband and I live in a semi-tropical climate that encourages lots of wildlife, and some is because we live in a city that prides itself on its tree canopy and nature. But much of the wildness of our yard comes because we've intentionally created a nature sanctuary around our house.

Dainty Mushroom in the Decomposing Woodpile

Snail Slurping up Cardinalflower (Lobelia cardinals) by the Pond

Horace's Duskywing Butterfly and Blanket Flower (Gaillardia sp.)

This brings me to the next reading from, "Audubon" magazine. This month's issue has an interesting article titled "Food Network" which explores research by entomologist Doug Tallamy about the importance of small habitats in yards and parks for attracting and supporting wildlife. I've known for a long time that thoughtful wildlife friendly landscaping can attract lots of bird, mammal, herp, insect and spider species to your yard and that providing, shelter, water and a variety of native plants are the basic foundations. But I hadn't thought too much about the opposite. This article explains how our traditional (sterile) yards with the monoculture of lawns and exotic landscape shrubbery, swept clear of insect life with insecticides are essentially creating wildlife food deserts all over the country. Wildlife, such as birds and butterflies, cannot survive on birdseed and pretty flowers alone. According to the article, "96 percent of terrestrial North American birds raise their young on insects. And not just any insects. Mostly caterpillars." It goes on to say that a typical Carolina Chickadee has to collect "390 to 570 caterpillars a day to feed a growing clutch of four to six chickadees in the 16 days from when they hatch to when they fledge from their nest. 'That can be more than 9000 caterpillars to make one batch of chickadees.'" I had no idea! Those caterpillars (that metamorphose into butterflies and moths) eat leaves and plants. So when we spray for caterpillar damage, or plant exotic plants that the native caterpillars have not adapted to feed on, think of all those starving baby birds, and butterflies that will never be!

Now when I watch the bird parents in my yard I have a newfound respect for all the work that they do. And I'm amazed that our yard apparently has the caterpillar population to supply them. It must be a pretty good supply, because I've watched bird parents successfully parent many batches of chicks this year. Now our feeders are crowded with the families of Brown Thrashers, Bluejays, Cardinals, Chickadees, Titmouses and Carolina Wrens. Those long suffering parents eat their fill while ignoring the fluttering wings and chirps of their adolescent young as they learn to feed themselves at our feeders. The Mississippi Kites are much noisier now as they fly overhead, which makes me think that they are out hunting for flying insects such as dragonflies for their hungry young. The crows are gobbling the suet, making me replace it much more often than I'd wish. But now that I know how much the chicks need to eat, I am more understanding. New Southern Toadlings have emerged from the pond and hop in the bark and leaf litter, searching for a juicy cockroach or earthworm. Even the Southern Glass Lizards are more active now. Twice this week I've seen one sliding through the Powder Puff Mimosa, perhaps in search of snails and other treats. Our yard is alive! It's very exciting. The Audubon article goes on to give step-by-step instructions for creating your own wildlife sanctuary. I hope you'll consider trying it. It's very rewarding and important. Habitat loss is one of the greatest dangers to wildlife. At the end of the article, Doug Tallamy reminds us that "as gardeners, we have never been so empowered--and the ecological stakes have never been so high."

Caterpillar Damage on Redbud Leaves (Cercis canadensis)
(Post Script: It turns out that this damage is not caused by caterpillars, but rather by leaf cutter bees. They are native bees that use the leaf parts to construct nest cells for their larvae.)

Cardinal Feeding

Brown Anole Catching Bugs in the Gaura

Newly Hatched Tadpoles in the Fountain

Ash Trees Provide Tasty Seeds for Wildlife

Powder Puff Mimosa Gives Support for Spiders, Nectar for Butterflies, and Shelter for Glass Lizards

My last bit of reading was an inspirational article and pictorial in the New York Times, about Master Gardener David Culp and the gorgeous garden he created around his Pennsylvania cottage. The article also promotes Mr. Culp's book, "The Layered Garden: Design Lessons for Year-Round Beauty from Brandywine Cottage" (this will be next on my reading list) and I would like to try to apply his techniques to my own yard. I have been working on our native plant garden for a few years now. I love the colors and shapes of native plants, but I have no training in the art of landscape design. So every year, I move plants around from place to place, trying to achieve the perfect look. I think I'm getting closer to what I want--good form and texture and color year round, but David Culp's yard is spectacular and gives me a goal to work towards.

Yard is Starting To Take Shape
All my summer reading points to a common theme--home as an oasis. These books and articles provide yet more motivation (as if we need it!) for creating a wildlife sanctuary. You'll find yourself with a yard that will be appropriate for your local growing conditions (water, temperature, fertilizer), one that will provide a basis for your local wildlife food chain, that doesn't use chemical controls, and will bring beauty and interest to your world. It's definitely what I need-- a little balm for my itchy soul.

Zebra Longwing Feeds on Starry Rosinweed (Silphium asteriscus)

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